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SEI working paper

Agent-based modelling: A tool for addressing the complexity of environment and development policy issues

This SEI working paper introduces agent-based modelling as a potential tool for examining complex modern policy problems, and offers examples from recent applications.

John Forrester, Richard Taylor, Mònica Coll Besa / Published on 30 November 2016

Taylor, R., M. Coll Besa and J. Forrester (2016). Agent-based modelling: A tool for addressing the complexity of environment and development policy issues. SEI Working Paper No. 2016-12.

Integrated policy problems call for integrated analysis. However, micro and macro approaches imply differences of perspective that conventionally have not been easy to unify. This paper introduces agent-based modelling (ABM) as one potentially useful tool for linking these aspects. ABM describes the system at the level of the social actors within it – that is, the individual entities, each with their own goals, values, rules, information, knowledge, strategies and social context. By doing this, ABM can help address the complexity of modern policy problems, particularly when used alongside other methods.

The purpose of this paper is to explain ABM and its applications, to help model users determine whether this approach could be useful in their own work. Motivated by the observation that there is inadequate briefing material on the method, the authors explain ABM and then address four of the most common questions raised when appraising it for research on sustainable development.

They draw on examples of SEI research using ABM for generating insights into a range of policy problems: the climate resilience of agroforestry livelihoods in Cameroon, energy policy and biofuels in Malaysia, sustainable livelihoods in small-scale fisheries in Kenya, and natural hazard disaster preparedness. By linking the example studies to the common questions, they further illustrate key lessons and findings in order to better inform readers.

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About SEI Working Papers:
The SEI working paper series aims to expand and accelerate the availability of our research, stimulate discussion, and elicit feedback. SEI working papers are work in progress and typically contain preliminary research, analysis, findings, and recommendations.
Many SEI working papers are drafts that will be subsequently revised for a refereed journal or book. Other papers share timely and innovative knowledge that we consider valuable and policy-relevant, but which may not be intended for later publication.

SEI authors

John Forrester
John Forrester

SEI Affiliated Researcher

SEI York

Profile picture of Richard Taylor
Richard Taylor

Senior Research Fellow

SEI Oxford

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